In every season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” there is at least one fighter whose personality outside the cage catches people’s attention, whether for good or bad reasons.
In the just-completed 14th season, there were two, Akira Corassani, an aggressive Swedish fighter who made it to the featherweight semifinals before losing an exciting contest to Dennis Bermudez, and John Dodson, the tiny fighter who looks too small to even fight at bantamweight.
Dodson, 27, who was mentioned earlier this week by UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones as one of the fighters who most inspires him, is a small man with giant goals.
"I want to be the first guy to win three titles in one organization, at 125, 135 and 145," he said.
Dodson (11-5) faces former Cal State Fullerton wrestler T.J. Dillashaw (4-0) for the bantamweight division championship of the 14th season of The Ultimate Fighter on Saturday night’s show on Spike TV. The finals take place at The Pearl at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas. The show will be the last full live card on Spike after seven years, a period that has taken UFC from near extinction to being among the most popular sports in a number of countries.
The show also features the featherweight division championship fight. Brazilian Diego Brandao (13-7), an aggressive striker who was the most impressive fighter in the house with three straight brutal first round knockout finishes, Bermudez (7-2), a former Division I wrestler at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. The coaches’ battle between Michael Bisping and Jason "Mayhem" Miller is the card’s five-round main event.
At 5-foot-3, Dodson was painted with a strange brush by the show’s producers. A member of Team Miller, he was at first the guy who was giving away trade secrets, the mole who would let Team Bisping know ahead of time what matches Miller was planning on announcing. And when the subject came up, he just smiled and pretty well admitted it.
"I watched the show, and as far as people who said I was a snitch, mole or rat, they can have their opinions on that," said Dodson, who like Brandao, comes from Greg Jackson’s camp in Albuquerque, N.M. "I was really talking to Diego (who was on Bisping’s team), telling him what the order is, telling him that me and you are going to fight last in the prelims, and the semis, because nobody wants to fight us in this place."
As short as he is, Dodson walks around at between 156-162 pounds, but said he mentally can get himself to any weight class asked and doesn’t seem to care.
"I’ll fight at 155, and I just told the guys, `What does it feel like to get beat by a 125-pounder,’" he said. "If I had to, I could make 115."
He noted his usual high school wrestling weight was 119, but he wrestled as heavy as 152.
"Sometimes I’m super retarded and think I can go muscle to muscle with anyone, but that didn’t work out," he said. "I used to think I was the same height as everyone. People would laugh at that. I assumed in my mind I had to be equal and they couldn’t be better than me. Anything they could do, I can do better was the mentality."
[ Related: Bisping ready for whatever “Mayhem” brings ]
Dodson is looking at the day UFC starts a flyweight [125-pound] division, something UFC president Dana White has talked about for about two years but hasn’t yet green-lighted. Dodson looks in particular at Demetrious Johnson, who has a similar body type, short, powerful for his size but is generally regarded as the fastest man in UFC, as a future opponent. Johnson, and Dillashaw’s teammate, Joseph Benavidez are the two fighters most talked about in UFC as potential flyweight champions if that division is established.
"I’ve seen the competition and I’d love a chance to fight [bantamweight champion Dominick] Cruz, [Urijah] Faber and Demetrious Johnson and make a name for myself," he said. "Johnson is one of the fastest guys in UFC. Cruz is one of the quickest. I want to show everyone I’m the fastest and quickest man in MMA."
But he first has to get through Dillashaw, who was tabbed by almost everyone as the favorite to win the season from day one. A product of Team Alpha Male, which means he’s training daily with the likes of Faber, Benavidez and Chad Mendes, Dillashaw has only been fighting two years, as opposed to 10 years for Dodson.
Dodson was one of those who tabbed Dillashaw as the cream of the crop, noting from day one he expected Dillashaw would be the guy he had to beat to take the tournament.
"In the house, me and T.J. were actually cool, I told him, `I want to fight you," Dodson said. "I told him that the first day. I tried to call him out. I tried to get him in the semifinals, too."
But Dodson felt Dillashaw was trying to face the easiest opponents possible en route to the finale.
"I think he’s a cocky kid, he’s too cocky in the MMA game for what he’s done," said Dodson, who was a two-time New Mexico state high school champion at 119 pounds. "He’s had four fights, aside from the fights on the show. You haven’t really achieved much. He might have wrestled in college, but other than that, you haven’t done anything. All I could think of is he’s too cocky for what he’s done, and he has no reason to be until he backs it up."
For his part, Dillasaw feels that training with some of the best lighter-weight fighters in the world gives him the edge over Dodson. "I went in with a lot of confidence because in my weight class, I train daily with the No. 2 and No. 3 guys in the world [Faber and Benavidez]’” he said. “I have sparring sessions that are like title fights every day."
"I didn’t hang out with him that much, as we had our own clique," said Dillashaw, 25. "I never had anything against him. He’s a nice guy. He talked a little too much but that’s who he is. We were cool with each other. But it bothered me he was trying to put all eyes on him, hammed it up, and loved the cameras being on him."
"I think I’m more well-rounded than John Dodson, I can fight on my feet, take it to the ground, my jiu-jitsu is better, my wrestling is a whole lot better, and I’ve got aggression as well," said Dillashaw, who was coached in college by Mark Munoz. "What he has is a lot of speed. But the guys he fought were slow and wanted to counter punch him."
"I know what it takes to beat me," said Dodson, who has lost five times in his career, all by decision. "It’s lay and pray, take me down, hold me down, make it a boring fight. I want to give the fans what they want to see, to just lay on top of me to get a win is very embarrassing."
Most “TUF” fighters, when asked about the experience, talk about going stir-crazy in the house with 15 other fighters, no television, radio, Internet, women, music or even access to the outside world, Dodson had a different take on the six weeks that were filmed over the summer.
"Being on the show was the only real vacation I’ve had in eight years," he said. "I’m teaching at the gym, being a coach, trainer, training partner, sparring all the time. Being gone for six weeks was kind of relaxing. It was the best six weeks of my life. Free food. I got to eat whatever I wanted. The only problem was cameras in my face and people telling me things. I didn’t have to worry about media or the outside world. I couldn’t listen to music, so I had to dance to music that was in my head."
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